Nashville Fridays: How to spend three days in Music City

A little over four years ago, I moved from Washington, D.C. to Nashville, Tennessee. Since I’ve been here, the city has become something of a darling of the national press, with write-ups fawning over its flourishing restaurant scene, hipster coffee shops, fancy cocktail bars, and of course, an almost embarrassing excess of world-class musical talent. It’s been fun to watch the city grow up.

The city’s rapid change and relatively cheap flights from the East Coast have made Nashville a popular destination for a weekend trip. I get a couple emails per month from friends in other parts of the country asking me what to check out while they’re in town. So rather than writing up a new response each time,  I figure I’ll put up a post here, and share it it with Washington Post readers as well.

Of course, this is just my own list, tailored to my own tastes and interests. It’s also mostly limited to those things Nashville I’ve personally gotten around to experiencing. So you should of course explore our fine city on your own, too. I’d recommend looking through the online version of the Nashville Scene’s annual “Best of Nashville” issue for other suggestions. With that out of the way, I give you “Radley’s Three-Day Guide to Nashville.” My long weekend guide assumes you’ll be flying in on a Thursday night, then leaving on Monday morning. But with a few noted exceptions, the recommendations aren’t specific to any day of the week.

Arrival/Thursday night:

Should your flight arrive early enough, you’ll likely be greeted with live music as soon as you enter the airport, either at the airport branch of the Tootsies honky tonk, or at other spots around the building. I suggest renting a car; Nashville isn’t particularly walkable. I’ve found the cabs to be pretty terrible, although we do now have Uber and Lyft, at least for the time being. I can only recommend hotels based on what visitors have told me. But our swankiest hotel is the Hermitage, conveniently located downtown. It also has an excellent bar, and one of the best restaurants in the city. (More on that later.) I’ve also had guests say good things about the Hutton Hotel and the Loews. If you’re on a budget, the Best Western on Music Row is clean, Nashville-themed, and ideally located for getting around the city.

Friday:

When I visit a city for the first time, I like to jump right in on the first day. Since this is a weekday, you’re also less likely to encounter lines and waits at the more touristy locations. So consider Friday your full-on Nashville immersion.

Breakfast

Get up early and head to the famous Loveless Cafe. If you’re staying in or near downtown, it’s a bit of a drive. Yes, it’s a weekday, but you’ll still want to get there as close to the 7 am opening as possible. One nice thing about Nashville is that with a few exceptions, most of its tourist attractions are the real deal. This is certainly true of Loveless. You won’t eat a better biscuit. If you do have to wait before getting a table, definitely tour the gift shops. You’ll want to buy some of the peach preserves you’re about to eat. I also recommend picking up a package of the jalapeño bacon, excellent for sandwich-making.

Alternative: If you didn’t rent a car, or you want to kickoff your weekend with lighter fare, try Noshville, the closest thing to a New York deli we have here. You’ll find all the deli breakfast staples (it’s the only place I’ve found to get good lox), plus great omelets and griddle cakes. There are three locations, but the bustling branch in the midtown area is usually crawling with music industry people in the morning. Great for eavesdropping. Great for lunch, too. Try the reuben soup. Yes, it’s a soup version of the sandwich.

A.M.

Try the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The Hall of Fame is really only a small part of the experience. It’s mostly about the museum, which is a fascinating tour not just of the history of country music, but of American roots music in general. And any well-told story of  American roots music is really a story about the American life. The museum is chock-full of listening booths, so you aren’t just reading about the music, you’re experiencing it. I recommend you spring for the audio tour, as well as the added tour of Studio B, where some of America’s most famous pop songs were recorded. You might also see me out walking my dog.

After the tour, head to Hatch Show Print to visit the oldest wood-block print shop in America. The prints are authentically and distinctively Nashville. Just about every major show in town will get its own print, and the shop itself sells off the extras. It’s a great place to find a pretty unique souvenir. After Hatch Show, head up to Manuel on Broadway, the studio of designer Manuel Cuevas. (See my profile of Cuevas here.) Manuel once worked with legendary designer Nudie Cohn in Los Angeles, then moved to Nashville to open his own shop. Sometimes called “the Rembrandt of Rhinestone,” he’s the guy who designed Elvis’ gold lame jumpsuit, helped the Greatful Dead come up with their logo, and has clothed several presidents. Today, he custom designs clothing for Nashville’s elite. If you have $2,500 or so to spare, he’ll set up you up with your own custom-made jacket.


Hatch Show Print tour Guide Rebecca Sloan and Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Guest Relations Specialist Gena Staib address attendees during the Hatch Show Print tour on July 12, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/for Country Music Hall Of Fame)

Alternative: If you went to Loveless for breakfast, and you’re here in the spring or fall, take a leisurely drive down the Natchez Trace Parkway. The foliage is stunning in autumn, but it’s a nice drive year-round. About 20 minutes into your drive, take the exit for Lieper’s Fork, a charming little village of art galleries, crafts, and restaurants at the edge of horse country. You’ll also find the original Puckett’s Grocery. It’s a landmark, and worth a visit, but the downtown version is the better place to eat.

Lunch

Since you’re already downtown, I suggest the just-mentioned Puckett’s Grocery, a Nashville institution. It’s down-home, stick-to-your ribs food. Sometimes the “vegetable of the day” is mac & cheese. The best thing about Puckett’s is the cobbler; it’s the best I’ve ever had. You’ll get it with ice cream, of course. And after a few bites, you’ll realize that people who debate pie vs. cake are perpetuating a false duality.

Alternative: Head to the downtown Arcade, where you’ll find a variety of options, from Thai to Tex-Mex to cajun to pizza to Mongolian barbecue. My personal favorite is Jimbo’s Sushi — not necessarily for the sushi (though it’s very good) as for the name. For desert, stay in the Arcade for Peace, Love & Donuts, where you can invent your own donut.

Afternoon

First, you’re probably going to need a nap. This will often be the case after a meal in Nashville. For a very Nashville early afternoon, I suggest a stroll down lower Broadway. Check out the shops. If you still have room, pick up a bowl of Pralines & Cream ice cream at Savannah Candy Kitchen.  Visit the the Ernest Tubbs Record Shop. This is tourist central — it’s what Nashvillians are referring to when they use the term NashVegas. But it’s still a lot of fun. If you can, try to book a tour of The Ryman, the historic site of the original Grand Ole Opry, and one of the best live music venues in America.

You’ll of course hear a lot of music here in Nashville. Lower Broadway is home to the honky-tonks, the historic music venues where country performers would play some of their bawdier stuff that wasn’t allowed at the Grand Ole Opry. The honky-tonks on Lower Broadway can get really crowded at night, especially on weekends. If you’re okay bumping asses and elbows with bachelor and bachelorette parties, road-tripping college students, and lots and lots of drunk people, go ahead and go at night and take in the whole scene. I prefer going in the late afternoon. Broadway is always hopping, but in afternoon you don’t need to wait to get a seat or a beer. Tootsie’s is probably the most well-known honky-tonk, but my favorite is Robert’s Western World, where you’ll hear some of the finest rockabilly music in the world.

Happy Hour

On Lower Broadway, you’ll already be surrounded by alcohol. But if you’re looking to escape the downtown crowds, try the Oak Room bar in the Hermitage Hotel. Morton’s Steakhouse also has a nice bar, and if you’re a bourbon lover, they often stock the ever-elusive Pappy Van Winkle. During the World Cup, I became fond of Fleet Street Pub, in Nashville’s historic (and historically debauched) Printers’ Alley. It’s a proper British pub, with all mushy peas, Newcastle, and Yorkshire pudding you’d want.

Dinner

Since you’re already on Lower Broadway, I suggest Merchant. Though it isn’t often listed among Nashville’s top restaurants, it’s one of my favorite spots in town. On weekend nights or evenings when there’s something else going on downtown, you’ll want to make a reservation. But otherwise you can often be seated relatively quickly without one. The downstairs has more gastropub fare, while the upstairs is more fine dining. Both are excellent. And if you eat upstairs, you might still see if your waiter will bring you an order of duck fat tater tots.

Alternative:  The Capitol Grille is also nearby. I’ve never had a bad meal here. I have friends from out of town who say they’ve had their best meal here. Be sure to get the sweet onion bisque. I love soup, and it’s the best soup I’ve ever tasted.

Evening

What you do in the evening may depend in large part on who is playing. But there are a few places where you’re pretty likely to see a great show no matter who’s on the bill. Since we’re going with an all-out Nashville theme on your first day, I suggest a night at the Station Inn. This is another Nashville institution, widely regarded as the premiere venue in America for live bluegrass music. I’ve seen about a half dozen shows there in which I had never heard of the artists who were playing. I’ve never left disappointed.

Alternative: Try a singer-songwriter round. If you watch the ABC TV melodrama “Nashville,” you’ll know what I’m talking about. Songwriter rounds are public events in which several artists take the stage, then alternate playing one, two, of their tunes. Sometimes the aim is to showcase new talent. Sometimes established artists use rounds to workshop new material. But it’s a fascinating thing to watch. On a given night, there may be one, two, or five songwriter rounds happening around the city. Check the listings of our alt-weekly the Nashville SceneBut some of the more popular spots where you can regularly catch one of these include the Listening Room Cafe, the Commodore Grille, and Douglas Corner Cafe.

Saturday: 

Today’s theme is the hipper, trendier side of Nashville.

Breakfast

My favorite weekend brunch in Nashville is at Tavern. But just about everything on the menu here is fantastic. If you’re going for brunch or dinner, go early early, so you aren’t waiting for a table.

Alternative: Most of the “Best of Nashville” lists will tell you that Marche in East Nashville is the best brunch in the city. It’s very good. But there may be a wait here, too. If you’re more in the mood for a greasy spoon sort of breakfast, try the Food Network-featured Athens Family Restaurant. Greek diner grub done right.

A.M.

First stop this morning is Third Man Records, Jack White’s funky studio/shop/performance space. If you’re lucky, you can catch a poetry reading, art show, art house movie, or musical performance. If not, you can just browse the shop, filled with what look to be the quirky props necessary if someone were to make a movie of Jack White’s mind. (White has gotten some bad press lately. I’ve never met him, but I know quite a few people who have worked with him in several different capacities. All of them rave about what a decent, down-to-earth guy he is.)

Next stop is the 12 South neighborhood. All the trendy national write-ups of Nashville will suggest you visit the custom denim shop Imogene & Willie. It’s definitely a cool and unique spot, especially if you’re the sort of person who gets excited at the idea of buying a $400 pair of jeans from a guy in a handlebar mustache. Maybe not for everyone. (To be fair, I’m told that they are really, really excellent jeans that will last as long as you still fit in them.)

Stay in 12 South for vintage clothing shops (try Katy K’s Designs for countrified vintage), a couple higher end men’s and women’s fashion spots, or a late-morning coffee at the Frothy Monkey. There also some excellent restaurants here (I can personally recommend Epice and and Josephine). There’s also a an old-fashioned general store.

Lunch

You’re going to head across the river to a place called the Silly Goose in East Nashville. Order one of their excellent sandwiches.

Alternatives: Is there a wait? You have lots of options nearby. First, try Mas Tacos Por Favor, a standard recommendation on most what-to-do-in-Nashville lists, and with good reason. There can be a wait there too, though. If you’re too hungry to wait, try Pharmacy just across the street for one of the best burgers in the city. Wash it down with an old fashioned flavored soda.

Afternoon

At first blush, East Nashville’s hipsteriness can approach Portlandia-like preciousness. I mean, there’s a store that only sells organic blends of oatmeal. It’s called — wonderfully, I think — Haulin’ Oats. I want to believe that they came up with the name first, then built their business around it. There’s even another old-timey general store. Yes, you’ll see plenty of artistic facial hair and Mayan baby slings in East Nashville. But you’ll quickly notice that the people are also overwhelmingly nice. This is the South, after all. So you needn’t worry. No one is judging your fashion sense or taste in music, at least not openly. I suggest just taking the afternoon to explore and take it all in. There are lots of vintage places here, too, plus some offbeat art galleries, vintage furniture, and one of the best chocolate makers in America (motto: “from bean to bar”). You may also want to stop by Fond Object, which is probably America’s only record store/boutique/vintage store/clothing store/jewelry store/music venue/movie theater/petting zoo. 

Alternative: Try Marathon Village, a cool complex that once housed a caboose-building factory. Some parts of Marathon have been brilliantly renovated. Others are still sort of falling apart. But that’s part of the charm. The guy who owns it all is also a little bit . . . we’ll say eclectic. That’s also part of the charm. In addition to music studios and artist studios, you’ll also find a couple art galleries, a coffee shop, a great new music venue, and Antique Archaeology, one of the two retail stores run by the American Pickers crew. It’s unlikely that you’ll want to actually buy any of the antiques here, unless you’re in the market for 1940s motorcycle,  or a vintage gas station pump. But it’s fun to browse. There’s also a place that sells gourmet marshmallows. I guess something has to fill the void now that the cupcake bubble has popped. The best part of the village, though, is Corsair, one of the many boutique distilleries to pop up around the area in recent years, and one of only a handful of liquor companies with a female head distiller. Before you leave for Nashville, be sure to schedule a tour of the facility.

Happy Hour

If you’re at Corsair, you’re all set. If you’re in East Nashville, I suggest Holland House, or No. 308, a hip spot with excellent drinks, great bar food, and a literary vibe. Before you imbibe, you might want to swing by the grand and glorious Midtown Wine & Spirits to pick up interesting, hard-to-find booze to take home with you. I sometimes here a choir singing when I walk in.

Dinner

Tonight would be the night to make your fine dining reservations. I’ll first make a pitch for Etch, my favorite restaurant in Nashville. Elegant, creative, precise, southern-influenced delights. I mean, the restaurant offers a “butter tasting” appetizer. It is exactly as it sounds. It’s a sampling of several flavored butters. That ought to give you an indication of what else you can expect here. I can also recommend the roasted cauliflower appetizer, the pork chop and, when they’re serving it, the scallops entree. Really. You should try to eat here.

Alternatives: I can also highly recommend the following restaurants: City House, Germantown Cafe, Husk, Prime 108, Rumors East, the Holland House, and the 404 Kitchen. I have heard great things about our nationally renown Catbird Seat, but I haven’t been fortunate enough to snag tickets just yet. If you manage to get in, I will envy you. Other restaurants about which I’ve heard good things, but haven’t yet visited myself: Rolf & Daughters, Lockeland Table, and the Standard at the Smith House.

Evening:

As with last night, check the Nashville Scene’s listings ahead of time to see who is playing around town. But if you’re open for anything, the Family Wash is often a good bet. As the name suggests, it’s a former laundromat that is now a restaurant, bar, and music venue. The music is usually pretty good. They also somewhat quirkily specialize in shepherd’s pie and house-made root beer.

If you’re interested in a night of libations, here are some of my favorite spots around town: The Patterson House is probably Nashville’s premiere fancy cocktail spot. Try the bacon old-fashioned, a delectably smoky, maple-y take on Don Draper’s favorite drink. This can sometimes be a destination spot for visiting musicians and Nashville celebrities, so please observe their “No starf—ing” rule. (Really, it’s a written rule.) On the other end of the spectrum, but just a short stumble away, is Dan McGuiness, a divey Irish bar and Music Row hangout. This is my regular spot, mostly because of the staff. There’s an outdoor porch with live music, although on weekends it sometimes turns into a Euro dance party, which is really unfortunate. You can also get one of the best burgers in the city here, along with an artery-killer called “sausage and batter,” which is sausage, wrapped in cheddar, then fried and served with dipping sauce.

About a half mile down Music Row you’ll find Bobby’s Idle Hour Tavern, another dive-y local landmark. Bobby’s only serves a few varieties of beer, and only takes cash. But it’s the sort of place where someone will pull out a guitar and start to sing, and there’s a decent chance it will be someone you’ve heard of.  Soulshine hosts some of the dirtiest dirty southern rock band in Tennessee. A cold pitcher of beer, a second-story patio, a band playing gritty 70s covers — there are worse ways to spend a summer evening. Santa’s Pub is a locally famous dive that got its name because its owner looks like this. 

Springwater Supper Club and Lounge is a rough-and-tumble vestige of 70s-era Nashville, when the city was a stomping grounds for names like Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Bobby Bare, and Marshall Chapman. Other bars I recommend: Music City Tippler, The 5 Spot, Gold Rush, Layla’s Bluegrass Inn, Winner’s and Loser’s (conveniently next door to one another), and the Lipstick Lounge, the city’s best lesbian bar (all are welcome). Oh, and if you’re a beer snob, try Flying Saucer.

 

Sunday

Breakfast

With any luck, you’re pretty hungover. The cure for your condition is Monell’s, a massive, all you can eat, family-style southern breakfast. They’ll start you off with biscuits, which you can take with gravy, with peach preserves, or both. Then come the eggs. And then the pancakes. And then the “meat tray,” with ham, sausage, and bacon. That’s followed by corn pudding. Grits and breakfast potatoes.  And then they bring out the fried chicken.

Alternatives: The Copper Kettle has an excellent breakfast buffet with a nice view of the city. (Update: This branch of the Copper Kettle has apparently closed since the last time I visited.) Also, the newly opened Kitchen Notes in the Omni hotel features a “biscuit bar,” which is every bit as glorious as it sounds.

A.M.

Again, you’re probably going to need a nap. But if you want to walk off your breakfast, you could visit Centennial Park, which features the world’s only to-scale replica of the Parthenon. It’s an admittedly odd building for a city like Nashville. And the massive statute of the goddess Athena inside is more than a little terrifying. But it’s also beautiful building, and the history behind it is fascinating. There are often various festivals and fairs going on in the park. If you’re missing your pooch, you’ll find a very nice dog park on the west end.

Lunch

Since it’s your last lunch in town, now would be a good time to try “hot chicken,” our culinary specialty. As legend has it, hot chicken was born when Thornton Prince’s girlfriend tossed a handful of hot spices into her fried chicken recipe to punish her man for cheating. But the finished product turned out to be pretty tasty. So tasty, in fact, that Prince eventually opened a restaurant to sell it.  If you want the real deal, head to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack on Ewing Drive. My favorite hot chicken spot is the relatively new Hattie B’s in Midtown, but the line there can get pretty long around lunchtime. A word of warning: Hot chicken is hot. When I first went to Prince’s, I ordered the “medium.” The woman looked me up and down, shook her head, and said, “No, you’ll have the mild.” She was right.

Alternative: Not into fried chicken? Head to the Nashville Farmer’s Market, where there’s a variety of fresh and prepared food on offer.

Afternoon

If it’s a nice day, I suggest spending your last afternoon at Cheekwood, a wonderful estate, stately old mansion, botanical gardens, and indoor/outdoor art museum. If you skipped lunch, the Pineapple Room restaurant is terrific. The curators do such a great job that it doesn’t really even matter what exhibits are showing. I saw an exhibit on Japanese basket weaving a few months ago. That isn’t something I’d ever have thought I’d find particularly interesting. But it was enthralling.

Alternatives: If it’s raining, you can still get an art fix at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It doesn’t have a permanent collection, but the temporary exhibits are usually an eclectic mix of fun and interesting. It’s also housed in a beautifully renovated old art deco post office. We also have a recently-opened Johnny Cash Museum, although I haven’t yet visited. If you have a sweet tooth, cool off in the afternoon with a gourmet popsicle from Las Paletas, which you can get at a number of spots around the city.

Happy Hour

Wind down at Pinewood Social, a huge complex near the riverfront offering fancy cocktails, terrific food, gourmet coffee, bowling, karaoke, and, in the near future, bocce and a swimming pool, all in the same place. Yes, it sounds sort of odd. But somehow it works.

Dinner

To get the full Nashville experience, you need to eat at a meat-and-three while you’re here. The meat and three is a uniquely southern institution, and Nashville seems to be a hub for them. Think of the meet-and-three as a more agrarian version of the diner. The diner grew in popularity on the east coast because it was a cheap and easy way to feed calorie-dense food to a growing labor force. In the east, laborers were mostly immigrant factory workers. So diners offered a variety of “peasant food,” and tended to stay open at all hours. In the south, “labor” meant farm work. So the meat-and-threes serve mostly regional fare, and only tend to stay open during daylight hours. (Arnold’s, probably the most famous meat-and-three in Nashville, is only open from 10:30 to 2:45 on weekdays.) Fortunately, there’s another landmark meat-and-three that’s open for dinner on Sunday. So tonight I suggest you eat at Swett’s. The food here is soulful, rich, and served cafeteria style. You’ll want to put gravy on that.

Alternative: Here are a few last restaurant recommendations. These are all what you might call not-quite-fine-dining. But the food is excellent: Coco’s Italian Market, Calypso Cafe, the Grilled Cheeserie (food truck), DeSano Pizza Bakery, Peg Leg Porker, Fido, Kalamata’s, Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, The Row.

Evening:

You’re flying back Monday morning, right? If so, and if you’re lucky enough to be in town when they’re playing, make every effort to see Country Sundays with Chris Scruggs at the Stone Fox. Scruggs is the grandson of the late bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs. One of the wonderful things about Nashville is that you can wander into a small venue, pay no cover charge, and spend the next several hours listening to some of the best musicians in the world — sometimes with just a dozen or so other people. For his Country Sundays shows, Scruggs assembles what on most Sunday nights is probably the most talented band playing in America. Together, they resurrect old-time country standards from the 1930s through about the late 1950s. It’s an inspiring thing to see. Scruggs has a nearly flawless voice, and a masterful knowledge country music history. For a couple hours, you’ll be sitting in a west Nashville ranch house that’s been converted into a bar and music venue, but you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to the era of radio shows, Nudie suits, and variety hours. It’s my favorite hidden gem in Nashville.

Alternatives: Again, where your evening goes will depend on who’s playing. But here are a few of my favorite music venues in Nashville: The Mercy Lounge and Cannery Ballroom complex is, as the name suggests, a converted cannery. It’s also located next to the train tracks, which can make for some fun moments during a show. On Monday nights, the Mercy Lounge features local talent with 8 off Eighth. The latter features eight local bands playing about three songs each. It’s a great way to sample the rich musical talent in this city. The Exit/In is another local landmark, as evidenced by its wall of fame of photos of entertainers who have sold the place out at least twice. It’s one of those larger venues that still feels small. 12th & Porter is another locally famous spot that features a large stage and a smaller, more intimate stage just inside. 3rd and Lindsley is another great spot. Recent renovations made the place bigger, louder, and more professional-looking, but kept a lot of the hole-in-the-wall charm. On most Wednesday nights, the venue features the Wooten brothers, possibly the most musically talented family in America. Finally, be sure to visit Basement, and the attached Grimey’s, a genuine independent record store that even Rob Gordon could love.

Nashvillians, what did I miss?

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · July 25